Comptroller Candidates Convene To Count Their Differences

07/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The four candidates for New York City comptroller faced off on June 16 at the CUNY Graduate Center at an event sponsored by City Hall. Questions came from City Hall editor Edward-Isaac Dovere, Michael Scotto of NY1 and the candidates themselves.

The debate between Council Members Melinda Katz (D-Queens), John Liu (D-Queens), David Weprin (D-Queens) and David Yassky (D-Brooklyn) started off politely, but soon became contentious as the candidates sparred over policy, the slush fund scandal and each other’s political ambitions.

Each candidate opened by emphasizing certain aspects of their agendas that set them apart.

Katz explained that one of her priorities was investing some pension money in companies that do business in New York City. Liu suggested he would look closely at the Department of Education’s financial operations, and use the comptroller position to gain more control over schools and reform mayoral control. Weprin stressed the need for the comptroller to be more accessible to people living in New York City—while there is currently a Manhattan office, he vowed to open offices in the outer boroughs, as well as an uptown Manhattan office. Yassky talked about eliminating wasteful bureaucratic spending and using that money to create jobs.

Although there was agreement that the pension system is bankrupting New York, along with much of the country, Yassky was the only candidate open to the possibility of creating a union-unfriendly fifth tier.

“I don’t think you take anything off the table,” he said. “I’m not a George Bush that says ‘Read my lips, no new taxes.’”

Candidates also debated ideas concerning responsible investment of pension funds.

Asked about changes they would propose in light of the pay-to-play scandal at the state level, the four had nuanced opinions on the role of placement agents in investment of the city’s $80 billion pension fund. Liu and Yassky distanced themselves from Comptroller William Thompson’s (D) current ban on placement agencies. Weprin called for greater transparency and said there was no reason for placement agents, insisting that instead they should be licensed professionals working within companies. Yassky modified that position, noting that funds managing $1 billion or more in assets do not need placement agents, but small investment funds should still be able to use them to gain the attention of the pension funds.

Katz said if they were allowed again, she would bring them in-house, but that given the current crisis, a ban is appropriate. Liu disagreed, calling the ban a “knee-jerk reaction,” and contended that there is a role for placement agents, but only if coupled with much greater disclosure and transparency.

The four discussed how they might use the comptroller’s office to bring about changes in both the private and public sectors.

Yassky stressed that he would use the comptroller job to push companies to reduce energy consumption and would also invest 5 percent of investments funds in green technology. Katz said she has submitted testimony the previous week to the Securities and Exchange Commission about changing the rules to increase the effectiveness of shareholder activism. Liu agreed they should leverage pension investments to effect change in the company’s structure, from human resources practices to executive compensation. Weprin underscored that he would look to divest from companies with significant holdings in countries like Iran and Sudan. He also suggested New York could partner with other states to increase its influence in spurring change.

Katz was the sole candidate to advocate for prioritizing investment in New York City businesses. She also talked about investing small amounts in distressed businesses, a position that carried potentially greater reward but also greater risk.

Liu strongly disagreed with the proposal, saying that “those are among the most aggressive, risky investments that anybody can make.”

Tension mounted when the discussion turned to politics.

Weprin was asked about his role as finance committee chair during the slush fund scandal. He said that while he generally was deep into the intricacies of the budget, the process was too big for one person to oversee everything.

“No one individual can be involved in every aspect,” he said. “I would say I’m very much involved, as much as you can be as one individual, with a $60 billion budget and thousands and thousands of not-for-profits that are funded.”

Liu was asked about his political ambitions and whether he saw the comptroller’s office as a stepping-stone to running for mayor. He answered that he did not, though Weprin later noted, to applause, that Liu had been running for public advocate until he recently switched races.

That came amid a heated exchange between Liu and Yassky, with Liu accusing his opponent of serial campaigning.

“As far as ambition and stepping-stones and things like that, David, you’ve got to admit this is like the fifth office you’ve run for in a number of years,” said Liu. “The fifth office you’ve run for.”

Yassky shot back that he had only run for three offices, and had merely talked about running for Brooklyn District Attorney.

Weprin reminded Yassky that he had in fact held a fundraiser in support of the Brooklyn DA bid.

“I know you had a fundraiser because I was there,” said Weprin. “I was supporting you.”

Katz refrained from wading into that political fray. Pointing out that she was the only female in the race and that most teachers are women, Katz asked if she could put the three men in “detention.”

The candidates also argued over the term-limit extension, which Katz and Yassky had supported.

Liu called the extension “an abysmal assault on democracy.”

A Quinnipiac poll that came out the day after the debate showed Liu leading the race with 19 percent, Katz with 13 percent, Yassky with 10 percent and Weprin with 5 percent. Fifty percent of New York City voters remained undecided.

ABOVE: Photo by Andrew Schwartz

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